By Eileen O'Grady
"Now we love the wind," said Max Watt as she signed her name on the side of a 98-foot-long turbine blade to commemorate the opening of wind farm about 200 miles west of Fort Worth. "We say, 'blow, blow, blow.'"
Wind farms like this one, owned by a subsidiary of German-based E.ON AG, are transforming the rural area's economy as well as its otherwise featureless horizon.
Watt and her husband own land in Nolan County where three E.ON turbines are now spinning, sending electricity to nearby cities and a steady stream of cash into their pockets.
While permits to build new cleaner-burning coal plants languish before state utility commissions due to pollution concerns, demand for wind power is resurgent. Electricity from windmills generates no heat-trapping greenhouse gases and is pumping cash into rural community economies.
Generally landowners get a per-turbine lease payment for land - about $900 per turbine a month - plus a percentage of royalties from power production once the windmills are hooked into the grid.
The U.S. renewable energy unit of E.ON has completed the first two phases of the Roscoe wind farm that can produce 335.5 megawatts of electricity, or enough to supply 100,000 average Texas homes at full output.
When completed in mid-2009, the Roscoe will farm will include 627 turbines with total capacity of 781.5 megawatts, making it the world's largest wind farm and surpassing the current leader, FPL Energy's Horse Hollow wind farm in nearby Taylor County, Texas.
E.ON Climate and Renewables plans to spend $10 billion in the next three years, mostly on wind projects. About $1.5 billion will be invested in the Roscoe project, one of five E.ON operates in Texas, said Declan Flanagan, E.ON Climate's North American chief executive.
Flanagan said the heavily agricultural area in Nolan County near Abilene didn't appear to be an ideal site for development when it was first brought to the company's attention several years ago because it lacked sufficient wind and access to transmission lines to move power to the state's electric grid.
But the company decided to install a tower to test the area's wind potential and now the site will become the world's largest farm.
"An area that conventional wisdom would have said was not a good spot, we quickly found had potential," Flanagan told about 200 landowners gathered at the site on Monday.
And Flanagan said E.ON isn't through developing wind projects in Texas.
"The state needs native, clean energy," Flanagan said.
Texas leads the nation in the amount of installed wind capacity at 5,871 megawatts, according to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, which oversees the state's transportation grid.
By the end of the year, ERCOT expects more than 8,500 MW of wind will be connected to the grid.
As new transmission lines are constructed over the next few
years to move additional power from the windy areas in the western half of the state to the power-hungry cities in the eastern half, the number of wind farms will accelerate.
(Editing by Chris Baltimore)